It is easy to assume the documents of Scripture are relics of a distant past, that they have little relevance for the lives of 21st-century people or the ministries of 21st-century churches. Even those who loudly proclaim the inerrancy and sufficiency of Scripture can easily succumb to the temptation of treating Scripture as an antiquated and arcane collection of ethereal sayings and inaccessible examples.
There is no doubt a wide expanse of time, geography, and culture stands between the documents of the Bible and their contemporary readers, and it does no good to pretend this expanse does not exist. Nevertheless, we at the B. H. Carroll Theological Institute believe the ancient documents which compose the canon of Christian Scripture still speak into our lives. It is why we follow Jesus, and it is why we train Christian leaders to minister in the diverse and global settings to which God calls them from a biblical spirit.
It is in this spirit that I offer the present series of blog posts. Over the next several weeks—indeed, if God allows, for much of 2020—we will be looking at Paul’s first canonical letter to the Christians at Corinth. This letter is one of Paul’s longest, composed of a variety of responses to issues brought to his attention by leaders within the Corinthian church and of questions posed to him by the Corinthian church itself. Our interest here is not in the exegetical details of this oft-studied and highly disputed letter. Rather, it is in how this letter might speak to churches and individual Christians in the 21st century. After all, Corinth was a cosmopolitan city in a pluralistic culture, so Paul’s insights might be particularly germane to the lives and struggles of Jesus followers in our day.
First Corinthians is legendary for its corrective, perhaps even combative, tone. The Christian assemblies which made up the “church of God” at Corinth had lots of problems, and, if N.T. Wright is at all correct in his Paul: A Biography, they did not always listen to or appreciate Paul’s corrective feedback.
Nevertheless, the tone of the letter’s opening (1:1-9) is not at all what we would expect. These first nine verses of the letter contain the typical epistolary prescript. But unlike another contentious letter written by Paul (Galatians), they also contain a genuine expression of thanksgiving. The tone of these two sections is, I think, genuinely affectionate. Paul really was grateful for the Corinthians, in spite of all the trouble they caused him.
So, what motivated Paul’s gratitude? The text seems to intimate four facts about the Corinthian Christians.
- Sanctification – The Corinthians had been “set about” as special, as “holy,” on account of their association with Christ.
- Calling/Identity – The Corinthians had received a very specific calling. The notion of calling is an important one for a first-century Jew like Paul, and this calling had conferred upon the Corinthians a new identity. The NIV’s rendering in v. 2, “called to be his holy people,” may be a little too paraphrastic for some readers, but it captures the essence of the identity transformation accomplished by the call extended to the Corinthian believers.
- Grace – The Corinthians were the recipients of God’s generosity. This “grace” manifested itself in very concrete ways, through the gifts and knowledge possessed by those who trusted Christ in Corinth.
- Posture – The Corinthians had responded to all they had received by maintaining the proper posture as they lived out their faith. They were waiting for Christ’s return and that posture contributed to Paul’s confidence, not only in the efficacy of his preaching but also in the faithfulness of the God who had called him to serve as an apostle.
Imitating Paul’s Example
Even in these initial paragraphs of Paul’s letter, we see that Paul’s letter is as relevant to our day as any “how to” article on the Internet or university research project. Drums of ink, metaphorically speaking, have been spilled on the failings of the modern church. Christians have been castigated for everything from their slavish devotion to antiquated texts to their willingness to throw away 2,000 years of wisdom for the latest fad in psychology or business. They have been alternatively caricatured as joyless prudes and repressed perverts. Churches have been condemned for their captivity to conservative, or liberal, political interests and for their unwillingness to engage in politics at all.
Much of this criticism is well-founded. We have all failed, and we all have a lot of work to do if we are to undo the damage our sin has done, both to our neighbor and to God’s Kingdom. We have all too often sold the truth of God for a mess of self-satisfied porridge, and, in the process, we have victimized our fellow human beings—and especially our sisters in Christ.
Nevertheless, we have so much to be grateful for, and it is that gratitude that ought to form the foundation of our approach to 21st-century Christianity. Like Paul, we can be grateful for the “big picture” stuff, including God’s faithfulness to His promises and the sanctifying work that Christ is constantly doing in his church.
We also have more specific things for which we ought to give thanks. Protestants and Catholics are no longer killing one another over religion or politics. Indeed, Eastern and Western Christians are engaged in more dialogue and share more affection for one another than has been present in many centuries. Our libraries are filled with fruitful research on the history and culture of the ancient world, the meaning of the Bible, the history of the church, and many other important topics. Christian physicists, environmental scientists, psychologists, and other professionals are expanding our knowledge of the natural world and enhancing our ability to alleviate human suffering. The church is thriving in Africa, Asia, and Latin America in spite of poverty and persecution.
These are not small matters, and we would do well to praise God for them. Doing so is important not only because we owe it to God to recognize all the good that he is doing, but also because it will inform our perspective as we seek to fairly and even-handedly evaluate our particular expression of Christian devotion. Seeing both the bad and the good helps us not to overstate one or the other. Moreover, it gives us a more emotionally mature view of history and our place within it.
So, when you think about 21st-century Christianity, what are you thankful for? Share your thoughts in the “Comments” section below.